Thursday, April 26, 2012

No harm, no foul?

"Hoo boy, did I goof," Ben Yagoda writes in his post about mistakes at Lingua Franca. His gaffe was so horrible that he won't disclose it, he says, or even link to it. Of course, it's easy enough to find, and it's not nearly as embarrassing as he seems to think. It appeared in a recent essay on commas for the New York Times's online edition, where Yagoda wrote:
The New Yorker has always been scrupulous, bordering on fetishistic, about commas, in large part because of its founder Harold Ross’s mania for precision and clarity. E.B. White, who was subject to the magazine’s editing for more than five centuries, remarked in a Paris Review interview, “Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.”
Of course he meant five decades, not centuries. But as I see it, this is the most benign kind of mistake a writer can make. Nobody can be misled by it; nobody is insulted by it; it's immediately clear that it's just a slip of the brain, a momentary processing error.

Now, it could be that I'm soft on Yagoda's error because I've done the same thing. In a 2005 column for the Boston Globe, on when we call a dead person "the late," I wrote this: 
Those are exceptions to the general practice; the late, most of the time, means "recently deceased," as it has for 500 years. The problem is that in all those millennia, nobody has managed to fix the limits of "recently."
Millennia? Uh-uh. A reader alerted me to the problem, two days after the  piece appeared; I ran a correction the following week, and that was that. Yagoda's goof -- which, unlike mine, was online only and thus entirely correctable -- also seems to have gone unnoticed for two days, until it was fixed and a correction was appended to the story. At that point, some Twitterer nominated it (implausibly) for "funniest newspaper correction ever," and a couple of desperate bloggers piled on. Meanwhile, not one of the many commenters on Yagoda's piece had mentioned the problem.

(And let me note, speaking as an editor, that in both our cases editors also read right past the errors. Yagoda's "centuries" and my "millennia" weren't the right words, but they were close enough to the expected nouns that they faked out the professionals.)

My conclusion: If you make a mistake like this, be glad it's a huge, glaring mistake -- not a subtle error that will sit like an unexploded shell in the archives, and not one of the common little transgressions that will rouse the peeving hordes. Keep your stupid simple, and the only possible comment will be "Oops." 

7 comments:

Bryan M. White said...

In your defense "millenia" is an infectiously appealing word. It's probably going to be stuck in my head now, right next to "fibromyalgia" and "inundated" :D

maxqnz said...

" Keep your stupid simple" - thanks for my new motto.

Sue Dunham said...

Both your slips could be excused as exaggeration for humour.

LC said...

I nominate for the embarrassing blooper Hall of Infamy, my failure to notice that a crucial consonant was missing in a document that offered "For more information contact the Pubic Information Office." I was head of that office.

It was two days before the emails hit my inbox. When I alerted my boss, his sly reaction was "Hmmmm, we may have to change your job description."

Gregory Lee said...

I will conjecture that the least noticeable errors are those corresponding to the way a word was first learned. We generally learn words from context and, consequently, at first have only a general notion of what a new word means. So perhaps our first idea about "century" and "millennium" was typically something like "age", "era", or "time period appropriate to the contest".

R. Newell DeWitt said...

My Studio theatre, wherever I am, is called "New Millennia Studio" and I have to say it IS a word, at least when I took my Contenental drift class in college... it is just that most people haven't the patience to even think that long... let alone grasp how much time... so here, straight from the source:

mil·len·ni·um (m-ln-m)
n. pl. mil·len·ni·a (-ln-) or mil·len·ni·ums
1. A span of one thousand years.
2. A thousand-year period of holiness mentioned in Revelation 20, during which Jesus and his faithful followers are to rule on earth.
3. A hoped-for period of joy, serenity, prosperity, and justice.
4. A thousandth anniversary.

R. Newell DeWitt said...

Sometimes 500 years seems like a millennia... now, if spellcheck will accept it...lol